Florence Nightingale, the English pioneer of modern nursing is quoted as saying, “I attribute my success to this: I never gave or took an excuse.”
Editors note: Never give up your agency. If your goal is to save life on the planet, sometimes you have to sink your own boat.
Derrick Jensen This is Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network. My guest today is Diane Wilson. She’s a mother of five, a fourth generation shrimp boat captain and an environmental activist. She’s been fighting to save the bays on the Texas gulf coast from chemical and oil development for the last 30 years. I also have to say that you have for at least 15-18 years been one of my heroes so thank you for that.
Diane Wilson Thank you Derrick, I appreciate that.
Derrick Jensen Thank you in general for your work in the world and thank you for being on the program. My first two questions are – can you introduce yourself and can you also then introduce the region where you live, the region you love
Diane Wilson First of all I’m a fourth generation fisherwoman, shrimp boat captain. My family has been around this area on the mid-Texas gulf coast for about 130 years so you might say I’ve got a real sense of place, where I was born and raised. I’ve been in the same town for my whole life. I’m 72 years old so I always call myself a late bloomer. Anybody out there who thinks they’re too old to start – that is not true. As a matter of fact, it just gets better as you get older. You get a little bit more free every year.
Basically, all of my family – my brothers, my brothers-in-law, my cousins, my uncles, everybody in the early days they were just gill netters, fin fishermen and they caught black drum and red drum. They had little wooden boats and they oared out. Where I’m from is a little fishing town. It’s probably the most authentic fishing village on the whole Texas gulf coast – Seadrift. We were all fishermen and your whole life was centered around the fish house, the bays, the nets the boats and that was your life. As a matter of fact, like most kids around my age, you spent your whole life outside. I was always on a boat I was always out on the water laying in.
I remember I was a real introvert even though people have accused me of being a real troublemaker, I’m by nature a real introvert. I can remember going to the fish house where my dad was coming in in the evenings and I would go to the bay and there was this old woman down there and she really liked me and when you’re one of seven kids and you’re getting attention from somebody and somebody likes you. I mean I liked going down there because of that old woman and she felt like she was my grandmother and the only thing I realized when I got older is that woman was the bay and she was as real to me as any other member of my family. I have never forgotten her and I have never forgotten what it feels like for something, what people call a resource or a commodity or an ecosystem, to me it was real and it had an aliveness and it had an energy.
When you’re small and your dad is just a small-town fisherman and you’ve got a small boat – I imagine his boat was good – and you would go out there because fishermen were poor people and they really couldn’t afford deck hands. So they would generally take the kids along. I had three sisters and me. My three sisters we decked for my dad and I really, really liked being out there and I was really good at it. When you had to take your turn at a wheel; when you’re dragging a net and you’re kind of holding the wheel and you gotta hold the wheel just so because you got to keep the net and the wheel wash in the shrimp all at the same time. My sisters would start crying because when you start turning a boat into the wind with the waves it will almost feel like you’re flipping over so my sisters did not like did not like handling the wheel but I loved it. I loved going out in the mornings and it was still dark and there was nothing but that salt air in that wind and you’re just barreling out in the dead of night. You see nothing. it’s almost like your instinct and there are very few beacons. It’s just years and years of doing it. I can remember and I suppose it’s because I had a real sense of the energy of that old woman. It’s like you literally could feel like your skin would separate – the wind in the water would just kind of move in there and it actually made me a bit of a mystic.
I’m a little bit of a mystic and I hate to tell you, I was raised Pentecostal and that’s holy rolling – speaking in tongues. My grandmother was a faith healer and I think she tried to raise my uncle from the dead and all kinds of stuff like that. I’m not that but I am a mystic and I have a real sense of what’s alive out there. People think it’s only what you see and it’s only yourself and it’s only the boundaries and the borders within your skin – that’s not true. As a matter of fact, that’s why I like your books so much because you seem to have a real sense of the connectedness and how valuable everything was. I could sense that, and I think it was because I spent all my life on the bay and I was a little bit of a loner so I didn’t have that peer pressure – sometimes at a certain age you get peer pressure and you get pulled away from that naturalness. I don’t think I was pulled away from it, so I’ve always had it my whole life and I still have it. It’s like a lot of the stuff that I do. It’s gut instinct and I don’t believe I’ve ever had a plan. I feel like I leave myself open for the energy because I truly believe there is energy out from nature and it’s got an intelligence, if you just work with it.
My location down here is mid-Texas gulf coast. We’re around Matagorda Bay, Lavaca Bay, Spirit Center Bay, San Antonio Bay, Mesquite Bay, Guadalupe Bay. Our county is a tiny county. When I was growing up there’s probably like 12 000 people in the whole county. The town where I was raised, Seadrift, was a thousand people. It’s been through so many hurricanes I can’t even tell you. It’s had so many hotels and railroads and restaurants and lumber yards destroyed in hurricanes. It always remains a very small town – a thousand people – and it’s always been this fishing town. We’re close to what they used to call Blackjack Island and now it’s known for the Aransas wildlife refuge. That’s where the endangered whooping cranes come every winter. They count every single last whooping crane that is left and they all come down and they nest in what they call Aransas wildlife refuge. Where my folks were from, they were fishermen there, and one of my uncles was in a hailstorm that killed a hundred cattle they had hail so big. He drowned out on the bay. I had another uncle, they had bonfires in those days and they did a lot of cooking on bonfires He was just a toddler and fell in the fire. I’ve got kin folks that are buried out there on that island. I’ve got a real sense of ancestries around here.
I know this whole area around here was where the Karankawa were. Those very tall, good looking, native American indigenous people and they lived around the water. We went across to where they were. They had all these arrow heads and all their camps and places and I believe I’m not too far from where there was literally a battle between some Irish settlers that came in. The Karankawas must have taken one of their calves and so they raided them and killed most of them and it was over a calf. It’s a sad part of the history down here. I think a lot of the Karankawas went to Mexico. That’s the history of this area. Even the Karankawas were early fishermen, and they laid the shrimp out to dry. I remember someone was telling me they would have a burning stake and stick it out in the shallow water and shrimp will come to the light and that’s where they would get a lot of their shrimp. They would have little catch nets or whatever and they would get the shrimp and then they’d dry them. That was one of their one of their ways they got nourishment around here. But like I said the Karankawa is no more although they’ve named bays and towns after them, but it’s a tragedy.
A lot of this area is where a lot of Irish settlers came in and a lot of German boats came in. There used to be a town called Indianola and now it’s a ghost town because that was where these big ships came in. All these German settlers came in and I think there was even a big civil war battle right there in Indianola and it was right on Matagorda bay. Two hurricanes hit it, one right behind another; then a fire hit it and then I believe smallpox wiped everybody out so now all you got is a beach. People say they can see that train out there when the tide’s real low although I have not seen that train.
Derrick Jensen Can you talk about what has happened and what caused you to become an activist? What has happened to the region in terms of industry and its effects on the bay and also its effects on fishing including shrimping?
Diane Wilson Well in the beginning there was no law; there was no verdict from Congress that industry had to say anything to anybody. So for a very long time these industries like, for instance. Alcoa and Union Carbide – very big plants – came in around 1950. They didn’t say nothing to nobody. They just did what they did. Sometimes the shrimpers, if it was a bad winter, might get a job for two or three months during the winter months and drive a truck or something like that. But basically, this industry did not have to report to anybody at all and the only thing that fishermen would get is when the times that they would work. They would say “they told me to take these barrels down to Stinky Ditch and I dumped them down there and I nearly passed out from smell and I remember and everybody in my unit is dead” or stuff like that. But it was just anecdotal because industry did not have to report or say anything to anybody.
Around 1989 shrimping was starting to fall off and so I started running a fish house. A fish house is a tin building. It’s got open windows and it’s got double wide doors that open to the bay and it’s got this long dock and this is where shrimpers bring their boats in. They tie up, they unload their catch – usually shrimp – and you take it into the fish house, put it on ice. You put it in these ice vaults so you can ship them off on these trucks later. I ran a fish house probably for five years. If I happened to look out that window, I could see my shrimp boat which was SeaBee and she was she was tied right up to the docks. I had probably 14 shrimp boats that I took care of.
One day I had this shrimper and he had three different types of cancer and he had these huge lumps all over his body and he was the best looking. I mean he looked like a surfer from California. My mama thought he was about the nicest looking guy she had ever laid eyes on. Anyway, he had all this cancer and one day I was in the fish house and I was sitting with a cup of coffee and I had my rubber boots sitting up on the desk and he came in and pitched this newspaper article to me. He said I want you to read that and like I said I’m a real quiet person so anyway I looked at the newspaper article. It was 1989 and on that front page article, The Victoria Advocate, was an associated press story and it was talking about the first time the toxic release inventory ever came out. The toxic release inventory was a community “right to know” bill
that was passed in Congress after Bhopal. People mainly know Bhopal because of Union Carbide was doing this whole effort to make India green and they were doing a pesticide plant in Bhopal, india. It wasn’t working so they were cutting all the safety. Anything that had to do about the lowering the temperature, about alarms, about freezing; they were removing it and the unthinkable happened and there was a chain reaction. There was a debate over actually how many people died but probably around two or three thousand died that first night in Bhopal, India. It was the worst environmental disaster that has ever happened and I think it still is. I think at this point maybe 20 000 people died from that one incident by Union Carbide. Because of it Congress passed the community “right to know” law meaning that there would not be another time when anyone in the US woke up one morning and there was something like that happen because they didn’t know what the industry next to them was doing or what they were polluting with. So, for the first time ever, industry in the United States had to report their air emissions, their water emissions, their injection wells, their landfill, their trucking – all of it. They had to report the numbers for the first time ever and that’s what that article was about. Our little bitty county with 12 000 people in the whole county we were number one in the nation and it literally blew my mind. It’s like “how could you be the most polluted place in the United States probably if it was the United States it was probably ranking worldwide and never know it?” I had never heard the first word about it. So, I acted totally out of character because I don’t like talking, I don’t like having to deal with people. I’ve never had a meeting called in my entire life but I went to City Hall. I walked down to City Hall which wasn’t too far away. I had that newspaper article and I went to the City Secretary and I said I want to have a meeting. There was the City Hall and a little bitty room that sometimes they let people have birthday parties or whatever. I said I wanted to use that little room and I wanted to talk about that we were number one in the nation. So, they put it down and they put down my name and the next day I was at the fish house and here comes the City Secretary. Well, you never see anybody, all you see is fishermen down there and here was a City Secretary and I still remember she had the prettiest fulstar with flowers all over it and she said “Diane you’re just gonna have to get this meeting out of the city hall.” I was like “why?” and she said “oh red flags; it’s putting out red flags all over the place.” I’m like “well I’ll do it in an elementary school, you know, they got a cafeteria I’ll do it there.” and she’s like “no they want you to get it totally out of town. They actually don’t want you to do it at all.” I couldn’t get over the fact that I had just asked for it and they didn’t want me to do it. The next day I had the bank president come down to the fish house. I had never talked to that man in my life and here he was, three-piece suit, and he said he said “Diane, are you gonna start a vigilante group roasting industry alive?” I’m totally dumbfounded. I have no idea what they are talking about; why they’re so upset with me – I have not even had the meeting. Then a guy from economic development called my brothers who were fishermen and said you better calm your sister down. My brothers were not the type that would even talk to women and tell them anything. Anyway, one of my brothers said “what in the heck are you doing?” and I’m like “I’m not doing a thing.”
Eventually I did the meeting anyway because I really don’t like people telling me I can’t do something, even though I’m a real quiet person, so I went ahead and had it. I went to a different place and had it. Eventually what it came down to is 1) nobody had ever questioned industry, ever, and 2) it was Formosa plastics, a Taiwanese company who had been kicked out of Taiwan- the biggest chemical expansion in Texas history; the biggest in the United States in 10 years. They had the Governor, the Chamber of Commerce, the Attorney General, the Senators, Congressional and whatever had promised this chemical company. There will be no questions asked; you will get all the tax abatement you want; you will get all your permits expedited; there will be no environmental impact studies. It was pretty much a giveaway and they never once asked one question about this foreign company’s environmental record. They could just come in and we’ll give you everything and I just stumbled on it. It was a fluke. Actually, I went to the mailbox and I got an anonymous letter. I opened it up and it was a newspaper clipping. It was for no supply sticks and it was seven air permits and I didn’t even know what it was. I didn’t know what the company was. When I finally had my little my little meeting as I got a group and I said “we’ll ask for a permanent hearing on this plan.”
As it was, I walked into a hornet’s nest. They couldn’t figure out who I was. They figured I was an official woman – a woman- so I was not bright enough to be doing this on my own. So they figured I was a spy hired by Louisiana to get it kicked out of Texas so the chemical plant would go to Louisiana. That’s how it started, and it never got any better – it got rougher and rougher. I mean everything for the last 30 years has been a battle. It’s been a battle and you just have to be very, very persistent. I think the reason why I’m so persistent is I am connected to that bay.
I remember when I first started. All I got was high school education, I didn’t have any money and nobody supported me. A fishing woman speaking out! People thought I was kind of crazy and all I had was this good sense of the bay. That was what was keeping me going on it. I really kept thinking there’s bound to be someone way better than me; way better at speaking; probably has a biology degree, can understand all of this chemistry and what these chemical plants are and what these chemicals are. It took about five years before I realized I was actually the best person to be doing it because it was my passion. It has always been my passion for the bay that has kept me persistent. That’s what I’ve been doing for 30 years – I’ve been fighting these chemical companies. I fought Union Carbide, I fought Dupont, I fought Alcoa and probably be the longest and the hardest is I fought Formosa.
Derrick Jensen: Thank you for all that. The next two questions are going to be:
- can you talk about some of your best victories or your best victory, either way? and
- can you talk about current struggles?
Diane Wilson What was to me one of the most interesting things that ever happened and it probably was a psychological kind of a spiritual thing. I had been fighting the Formosa wastewater permit and I had an attorney who agreed to help me and he became a really good friend. People in the community were afraid of the retaliation from the chemical company, especially when a lot of the local officials have contracts with the company. Fishing is going down so you have workers that are being hired at the plant, so nobody wants to say anything and I was the main thing. I haven’t a lawyer who could help me file a suit or something like that. You know a thing about a chemical company. One thing they do is they sense who the allies are so they go after them. On this one they started just throwing them into a deep hole with documents so the money expenses really started hitting them hard and so eventually my lawyer quit and started working for the company. I literally had nobody at all. So, I started filing some papers trying to fight Formosa’s wastewater discharge. When you don’t have a lawyer and you and you don’t have a college education and you got to write briefs and do your own legal work and you don’t have any money. I was doing pretty much filing my own briefs on a Royal typewriter.
Sure enough, they didn’t give me status and they said I couldn’t fight the permit so I appealed it. I always considered you give a monkey a typewriter and after a while that monkey is gonna type a word and so eventually I managed. Believe you me I still don’t know how I did it. I managed to stall the permit with an appeal with a Washington judge, an appellate judge, and so Formosa could not discharge until there was all this ruling and all ofthis process with an appellate judge out of Washington DC.
So I pretty much had their waste water and they could not discharge; they could not begin their plant. So one day I called the EPA to check on the status of the of that discharge permit and I said my name was Diane and I was second on the status. They start talking about “how was that discharge going and I noticed you have some copper discharges but I’m sure we can try to figure out how to do it and you really kind of need to keep the flow in the right period and now you know.” Then it hit me that she was talking about Formosa’s discharge and she thought I was Formosa’s lawyer whose name was Diane too but that was a different Diane. I said you’re talking to the wrong Diane and that’s when she realized she kind of screwed up there.
Basically, it doesn’t matter what the legal documents say, what the law says – if you have enough money you will get what you want. It was it was the first time I had really come home to the fact that the law doesn’t matter when you got money and when you got power; you really can do what you want, and the law is like a handkerchief in your back pocket. You pull it out when you want to. I was outraged. I was totally outraged about it. The unfairness of it, the injustice of it. It hit me like nothing had hit me before. I knew I had to do something to symbolize that type of injustice. When it appears that nobody cares, everybody overlooks it, it’s injustice going on so I knew I had to do something. l knew that I had to sink something; I had to sink something that I cared a lot about. That’s when I knew I had to sink my shrimp boat. I was going to take it out and sink it on top of Formosa’s illegal discharge. That boat was nowhere near the value of a bay.
Some people can get the little picture, or you can get the big picture. You can look at the little picture and it’s like “oh it’s my livelihood it’s my boat.” It’s “what am i gonna do?” and then you get the big picture and it’s like “this is the planet this is your home for all of us we’re all supposed to be here.” Are you gonna let them take it? I wasn’t gonna let them do it. I was gonna symbolize it by sinking my shrimp boat. So, I put the motor out and I convinced an old shrimper to pull me out in the dead of the night. There was this crazy norther came in at the same time. I can’t imagine how all of these elements came together at the same time – this weather and the black of night in this boat and just doing this covert of pulling a boat out to sink it on top of Formosa’s discharge. There happened to be a shrimper who had been bought back from us and they were paying sixty thousand dollars a year just to be a consultant. He was pretty much just watching me to see what I did and tell the company. Anyway, he pretty much told the company that I was towing a boat out so they called the coastguard. At one o’clock in the morning there were three boatloads of coastguard and they were out there in the middle of the rain and all that wind. They were like “Miss Wilson, Miss Wilson are you out there, Miss Wilson?” They said they’re gonna charge me with terrorism; that I was gonna go to jail for 19 years and it probably took an hour for every two yards because you’ve got a boat towing you; you got a boat with no rudder and you got three coastguards in the middle of the night; in the middle almost of the jetties and all this current. It was the wildest scene of all. These coastguards jumping all over the boats with ropes and all of this stuff. Eventually it took about an hour to happen, but they eventually pulled my boat to a harbor. They put seven or eight ropes and tied it down. They put me in the cabin, locked me in. The guys were so afraid I was gonna get out and somehow take that boat out there without a rudder. I was going to get it out there. They were sleeping on the back deck; they were sleeping in trucks on the wall. I was pretty much stuck there with all these coastguards and all the ropes on my boat. I hadn’t sunk the boat. The next morning when I woke up I heard the sounds of a boat. Then I heard more boats and I looked out the window and there were these shrimpers who never get involved – they don’t believe you can fight; they gave up hope. They think every nail is in their coffin. These guys did a blockade. They all went out in the middle of that rough water. It was so rough you could have sunk a boat out there. I promise you the coast guard does not like shrimp boats blocking anything and here all of these shrimp boats went out in this rough weather and they did a protest and in support of what I was trying to do. That was the most amazing experience to see how if you move sometime and you have no real plan – just have a real instinct – is that things have a way. Some of the most amazing things that you can never plan happen.
I remember after that – Formosa saw all of those fishermen out there protesting in the middle of the bay. I think they had a funny sense of a house built on sand. That’s when uh they asked me “what is it gonna take to shut you up?” and I said “zero discharge of your entire waste stream” and so that’s actually how I got zero discharge from Formosa of this waste stream back in 1994.
Derrick Jensen: I’m sorry that this is so short because i’m loving everything you’re saying and we only have like five minutes left. Can you talk briefly about the lawsuit that you won? Then can you talk about current issues?
Diane Wilson: I have a lot of connection with workers inside the plant. Over the years they’ve come to me with information. I had a worker that was in the utilities or the wastewater and he was a whistleblower. He wanted to give me information, so I met him in a beer joint 40 miles away. He was telling me about all of the pellets that were in the waste stream and how they were going into the bay; how they were in the storm water ditches. He was just real concerned about it because he liked to take his kids fishing and when he took his kids fishing there would be all these pellets all over their feet. So I started checking on the pellets that were coming out of Formosa plastics and the state agencies, EPA – nobody, nobody seemed to care at all. Eventually me and a couple of workers – probably it was three or four of us all together – in January 2016 we started collecting all of these pellets and this powder that was all over the bay, all over the creek. Within a year, and we were all going out almost every single day for over a year, we had a thousand samples and probably had two or three thousand photographs. Then we got a legal aid group – Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid – and they offered to be our lawyers to file a citizen suit under the Clean Water Act. For the next two and a half years until March 2019 we collected around 2500 samples of illegal discharges. We probably had 8 000 photos and videos and we took Formosa to federal court. Believe it or not we won. It was astounding and it was the first time a citizen brought their own evidence; it wasn’t the state’s information; it wasn’t the EPA’s information, it was our evidence. The federal judge said Formosa was a serial polluter and their violations were enormous.
After that Formosa wanted to settle. They wanted to sit down and negotiate. So we sat down and negotiated with one woman, Taiwanese American, and we said we wanted 50 million; we wanted zero discharge of plastics; we wanted a clean up; we wanted our own enforcement and we wanted to make sure their plant did not discharge any plastic and we got it. We got all of it. It was the biggest settlement of a citizen suit ever in the United States. From that 50 million dollars we put 20 million dollars into a sustainable, diverse co-op for the fishermen to try to bring back the fisheries. Right in the middle of it then you know you got this Max Midstream trying to do oil export, and to do oil export he needs the bay dredged so he can get big ships in. Unfortunately, it’s a mercury superfund site and so I did a 36 day hunger strike to try to stop the oil exports and to stop the dredging. After that I went to the corps of engineers and blocked their highway; got arrested, thrown in jail. Then we went to his headquarters, we went to his home and we’re doing every single thing that we can to stop that oil export and stop the dredging because we’re trying to bring back the fishermen who have been devastated and that’s pretty much where I am right now.
Derrick Jensen This whole this whole time you’ve been talking I’ve been thinking about this line by Florence Nightingale which was something to the effect of somebody asked her to what did she attribute her success and she said “I never gave nor took an excuse.”
Diane Wilson That’s right.
Derrick Jensen You know you did not take the excuse that I’m not a lawyer so I can’t do this; I’m not a somebody so I can’t do this – you just did it That’s one of the reasons you’ve been one of my heroes forever.
Diane Wilson Thank you very much, I really appreciate it. You know when that Taiwanese American lady, that negotiated, the only woman that came in, when I walked in, and looked at me and said “you are very persistent”. You do it and be persistent; just keep doing it.
Derrick Jensen So my last question for today, and I’d love to have you on again, my last question for today is one of the things I try to do with these series of interviews is to help people. I mean everybody knows something that is that is bad; everybody loves something that is being destroyed. What can you say to them to help move them from sitting around going “gosh things are really bad somebody should do something” to being the person who does something. Or to being one of the people that does something. Can you say something to them?
Diane Wilson Basically I believe everybody, and I truly mean everybody, has – it’s almost like a destiny – there is something we are meant to do. Somewhere in their life some little piece of information is going to come to them. What they do with that information will determine the rest of their lives. I am just so glad I acted totally out of character and stepped out. That’s what you gotta do and I think everybody gets a chance. It’s what decision they’re gonna make on it and it will change your whole life. I’ve lost a lot of stuff but for the first time I remember “I like myself” and for a woman from the south to say she likes herself that’s a big deal. It’s changed my whole life. I am 72 and I have never felt so free and happy in my life.
Derrick Jensen Thank you so much for all of that and thank you for your work in the world and i would like to thank listeners for listening. My guest today has been Diane Wilson. This is Derrick Jensen for Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network.